Letting Your Hair Down

William Edwards and Sam Langford interrogate a particularly dicey double standard.

“You pluck your chest, your legs, and your arms, and your dick has a neatly trimmed fringe of hairs around it. You do all this, Labienus, for your girlfriend. Who doesn’t know that? But for whom, Labienus, do you depilate your asshole?” – Martial, Roman poet and dirty-minded gronk, 1st Century AD

History doesn’t record Labienus’s response to Martial’s loaded question, but it doesn’t matter – we all know the answer. The implicit link between depilation and a predilection for being penetrated has survived 1900 years. Even if Martial’s brand of linguistic whimsy has faded from popular usage, body hair removal remains commonplace among men who have sex with men.

Enter the twink, which for the uninitiated is a typically slender, youthful, rather hairless gay man. It’s an ideal that is, like most stereotypes, more fiction than fact, and serves mainly to shoehorn a group of people into an uncomfortably limited role. For many, including our Anonymous Twink Correspondent, the hairless aesthetic involved does not come naturally.

Anonymous Twink Correspondent (ATC) has, of course, a whole life outside of his gay scene pigeonhole. A young man in a small town, he’s keenly intelligent, precocious, and more than a little cheeky. He’s confident enough to readily admit that he “like[s] being hairy and find[s] it sexy”, but realised a while ago thatself-acceptance wasn’t enough – with the exception of his experience with a rare supportive partner, he “would have to shave to get sex”.

ATC provides a blunt list of the areas of his body he shaves: “chest, stomach, ass and lower back hair.” He also trims his pubes. This list of concessions to an unfair aesthetic was familiar to both reporters – to your non-male reporter, it felt like a continuation of a familiar conversation I have daily with women.

Most familiar was his sense of annoyance with the way body hair is such an easy target for public commentary. ATC’s close friends have commented that they “don’t think they’d be able to have sex” with him if his body hair was “natural or even trimmed”. Unsolicited comments are regular, especially on apps like Grindr.

“It annoys me,” ATC says of these comments, “because I feel that body hair should be more accepted. There is definitely a twink ‘dominance’ on the scene, where the smooth body is portrayed as sexy whereas body hair is often vilified.”

The desire to rage against the dominance of frustrating standards is, like the standards themselves, familiar to women also. The difference in gay men’s community is, perhaps, that the hairless twink is not dominant in all circles. From your non-male reporter’s experience, a hairy counterculture among women is peripheral and difficult to access except in niche, usually queer spaces. Women’s body hair is often talked about, but rarely openly celebrated. Fellow hairy crusaders are a rare delight to stumble across.

Not so for gay men. Bears (subculture, not animal) reject the anti-weight, anti-aging, anti-hair products and services (once marketed exclusively to women) now embraced by many other gay men, instead celebrating and encouraging going au naturale.

The subculture is of course imperfect – while predicated upon the rejection of artificiality in male bodies, there is still dominant standard of sorts; an ideal way to be natural. All bears are equal, but some are more equal than others. There’s a widely recognised stereotype that dominates: think middle-aged with a beer gut and a luscious fur coat (relax, PETA, it’s grown from one’s own skin).

While for some this comes naturally, like with twinkhood, many men aren’t predisposed to certain traits (in this case, weight gain and considerable hirsuteness). Perhaps carelessly, also, these qualities are explicitly associated with masculinity, which is highly valued within the subculture. It’s an ironically artificial standard of masculinity, given how many men naturally don’t meet it.

All this said, it’s difficult to attribute ideas to bears as a group. It’s not like there’s an international organisation for all bears. We found the next best thing, though, in talking to Evan Cannan, President of Sydney’s Harbour City Bears (HCB).

HCB is a not-for-profit community group for hairy gay men, their admirers, and friends. Despite our apprehensions about the bear community idolising a single body-type, Cannan describes HCB as diverse. “You’ve got bears, muscle bears, cubs, otters, chubs, chasers, and just a few other labels… You’ve got your leather bears as well, and then you’ve got your admirers which can be heterosexual couples. We’ve got some female members in the club as well, and I know of two heterosexual couples that are members.”

This diversity is likely a cause of another of HCB’s qualities, one often associated with the bear community in general. It’s been said that bears are simply nicer than their slimmer, smoother, often younger counterparts. “It’s a friendlier environment, it’s not a threatening environment,” Cannan says of HCB, adding that people don’t “feel like they’re that piece of meat in the butcher’s window.” That feeling – a result of the arguably hyper-sexual atmosphere of many gay male venues and events – isn’t an uncommon complaint among gay men, and bears won’t bear it.

The bear community provides something of a safe harbour from the mainstream gay community’s expectations. It’s arguably better than the relative dearth of such community for women, but it remains nonetheless a subculture and a minority within a minority. For those without access to groups like HCB, the hyper-sexual spaces often at the core of gay socialisation remain problematic as ever. In particular, it seems that the centring of sex in these spaces is a large part of the problem.

Talking about that centring of sex means, inevitably, talking about porn. Both Cannan and ATC acknowledge the role of gay porn in shaping the standards and expectations of the community today. One of your faithful reporters did a deep dive into forty years of gay pornographic history, and returned with an explanation of how we got to this point.

Here’s the crash course you never knew you needed: from the 1970s onwards, gay pornography experienced major stylistic shifts. Most films transitioned from longer narratives to ignorable framing plots, from dimmer lighting which cast parts of actors’ bodies in shadow to a radiant glare, from insinuating that gay sex is inherently sordid (and using shame to arouse) to taking it for granted, from exponentially briefer cuts (one popular film featured 39 cuts over 1 minute) to more protracted sex scenes, from being viewed in sticky-seated public theatres to sticky-keyboarded home computers, from being a stimulant for cruising to a masturbatory aid.

These earlier techniques are united in that they arouse the viewer through their sense of empathy. According to writer and academic Daniel Harris: “Pornographers believed they were filming two people, not in the act of fucking, but of merging… Sex was supposed to effect a mystical union of lovers whose spiritual integration in the heat of passion was represented aesthetically by actively confusing their bodies…”

In contrast, the techniques widespread today arouse the viewer through their sense of sight. The reasons for this change are many and complex – part technological, part sociological – but the result is that contemporary viewers gets off on how the actors look while fucking, not how they feel. Consider some of the positions seen in any kind of porn: do they look at all comfortable, or do they least obstruct your view of the “right” body parts?

Perhaps the most obvious proof of this is the actors themselves. Body hair exemplifies the issue. Entirely untrimmed pubic hair, once standard in gay porn, is almost a novelty. Hair on many other areas, such as the anus and chest, is usually only kept if it’s sparse or fair. Even more telling is how this is represented in pornographic marketing, where hairlessness is the unmarked norm, while the presence of hairy actors is explicitly flagged in titles and trailers.

Gary*, a gay pornographic actor, has personally felt the effects of this situation. “I’m very hairy but not really beary,” he says, displaying a proclivity for rhyme your reporters think would be a splendidly funny addition to porn. “I started my career not doing anything to [the hair]. One day I tried shaving and I remember at the next shoot, my director was shocked. He said, ‘but that’s what set you apart from my other actors.’”

At face value, this seems like acceptance, but in reality it only adds another limited role to the short list of acceptable parts hairy gay men are permitted to play. Aesthetics are paramount in contemporary gay pornography, and this emphasis flows over into gay community through the hyper-sexual bars and clubs that still form a large portion of gay community spaces.  Invisible rules declare body hair acceptable only in certain contexts; as novelty, or within a subculture, or in mutual exclusion with sexual desirability.

These arbitrary limits are real and restrictive, but perhaps the biggest problem is that they are insidious. While gay men’s community might have the established hairy subculture that women’s community craves, it lacks the kind of public dialogue that is afforded to women. Heteronormative standards mean the conversation about gay men’s body hair is suppressed – removed from both the general public’s eye as well as the gay mainstream.The pressures that exist surrounding gay men’s body hair are awful, but even more so is the fact that they so often go without public interrogation. That’s not to say that no-one is talking about it, but the conversation is anything but loud.

It may worth taking a leaf out of Martial’s book. We all know for whom we depilate our assholes (or the rest of our bodies), but perhaps it’s high time that we asked ourselves why.

*names have been changed